The Philippines has green-lighted a large convoy of civilian boats to bring Christmas cheer to troops stationed on its outposts in the South China Sea, the government said Tuesday, despite some tense standoffs lately with Chinese ships in those disputed waters.
Citing the risk of a heightened confrontation with China, the Philippine National Security Council compelled the organizers of the planned convoy – a civilian coalition called Atin Ito! Or This Is Ours! – to veer away from their original plan to sail directly to the BRP Sierra Madre.
The World War II-era ship was deliberately grounded at Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, a reef that lies within the Philippines’s exclusive economic zone, to serve as Manila’s military outpost there.
Organizers told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, that as many as 40 civilian boats would participate in the convoy, which will conduct its trip from December 10 to 12.
“Both parties agreed that a convoy to the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal would not be advisable at this time since the safety of the civilian convoy is of paramount consideration,” Jonathan Malaya, assistant director general at the National Security Council, said in a statement on Tuesday.
“The agreement ensures the safety and security of the Christmas Convoy and the timely delivery of donated items to our fisherfolk and front-liners and upholds our sovereign rights to the West Philippine Sea,” he added.
Malaya said the convoy would still pass “through the general vicinity of Ayungin Shoal as far as practicable” on its way to other Philippine-occupied features in the West Philippine Sea, the part of the South China Sea within Manila’s 200-nautical mile EEZ.
The convoy will make a stop at Pag-asa (Thitu) island, a territory occupied by the Philippines, to transfer Christmas gifts and donated supplies to the navy. The items will then be delivered to marines stationed in Ayungin via the navy’s routine rotation and resupply missions.
Pag-asa, located beyond the Philippine exclusive economic zone, is the largest of the nine features occupied by Manila in the South China Sea and the only one with a civilian population.
The waters around Ayungin Shoal have grown increasingly perilous due to heated encounters between Philippine and Chinese ships in recent months. China Coast Guard ships and Chinese maritime militia ships have persistently tried to block or pursue Philippine Coast Guard vessels, as well as wooden boats delivering supplies to the marines stationed on the Sierra Madre.
Philippine authorities also explicitly recognized that the potential for escalating tensions with China had played a role in their decision to prevent the civilian convoy from traveling to the Sierra Madre.
It could add to the “tensions between us and China,” Malaya said.
“They cannot go inside the lagoon, and they can’t board the BRP Sierra Madre. What is paramount is their safety and security.”
Chester Cabalza, a security expert and founder of the International Development and Security Cooperation based in Manila, said even though the convoy would avoid Ayungin Shoal, the trip could still be viewed by China as a provocation.
“In Manila’s version, it’s an exercise of a right to travel and for its own citizens to explore the territories of the Philippines, which perhaps may be misconstrued by China again as a provocation,” Cabalza told BenarNews.
China lays claims over a large swath of the South China Sea.
In 2016, an international arbitration court, using the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, ruled against Beijing’s expansive claims and sided with the Philippines based on a complaint. But China, a signatory to UNCLOS, has ignored the landmark ruling.